Strong Verbs = Clear, Tight Sentences

If you’re struggling to tighten up a flabby or unruly sentence, where do you start? Generally, I get the best – and fastest – results by focusing on the verb…

Verbs are especially powerful because they convey action. They tell what’s happening. A strong, simple, active verb attracts attention and resonates with human experience.

In all writing (but especially online writing, and any document with a strong potential to bore or baffle) choose verbs that are:

  • Active voice: Strong verbs don’t rely on any form of to be (such as “It is understood…”). Passive verbs mute or mask action. (Yes, occasionally passive verbs are genuinely necessary – but usually not. Don’t keep a passive verb unless you’ve seriously tried to eradicate it.)
  • Precise and vivid. English is a rich language – use it. Explore your thesaurus. Usually you’ll find a simple verb that offers exactly the shade of meaning you desire. For instance, help, assist, or ease generally communicate more clearly than facilitate.
  • Not flowery or obscure. This is a judgment call. It depends on how well you gauge your audience’s taste. Basically, choose verbs in order to communicate well, not to impress or sound “official.”

EXAMPLE

Let’s rework this ugly sentence, which I found in an online business publication:

“To facilitate the organization of the event, the invitation directed the recipients to respond to different planners.”

Follow these steps to fix that sentence:

1. Ask: What does this sentence say is happening here? What is the action being expressed? Who or what is the actor and the object of the action?

The easiest way to figure that out is to identify the existing verb. In this sentence, the verb is directed. Who or what is directing? The invitation. …Yeah, right. Obviously, invitations don’t direct anything – the people who write invitations do. Viewed from this perspective, the structure of this sentence is definitely screwy because it masks the true nature of the action.

2. Ask: What’s really happening here? You’ve identified the nature of the communication problem. To fix it, you must discern the true nature of the action. Once you’re clear on what’s happening, the best way to express it usually becomes obvious.

In this case, the main message is that people invited to this event had to do more than simply respond – they had to respond to the correct planner (a person, I assume). I’m guessing that the point of this sentence is to justify the added complexity. I could be wrong about that, but since we’re looking at only this sentence out of context, let’s assume I’ve guessed right.

Given that, what is the action here? What verb could work?

Some form of to direct might still suffice – although I’d personally avoid that since direct has multiple meanings, including straight and unambiguous. Although those meanings obviously wouldn’t apply here, I think the verb direct creates jarring overtones in a sentence that justifies complexity.

Other options which sound less dictatorial are to ask or to request. These would be more in keeping with the context of inviting people to voluntarily participate in an event.

Let’s choose the simplest, clearest option: some form of to ask. That’s our verb.

3. Identify the subject and object. Who’s doing the asking? I specifically said “who” here because “asking” is something that people do. Documents (such as invitations) can convey questions or requests, but they don’t actually pose the question. This is a subtle distinction, but when you’re tightening up a sentence such nuances matter greatly.

In this case, the company organizing the event (let’s call them XYZ Inc.) is making a special request of the invited participants for a specific reason. So the invitees are the object of this sentence.

4. Put it all together. We have our verb (ask), our subject (XYZ Inc.) and our object (invited participants). We also have the goal of justifying complexity in the response process.

So how about this revision:

XYZ Inc. asked the invited participants to respond to different planners in order to make this event easier to organize.

Again, compare that to the original sentence:

To facilitate the organization of the event, the invitation directed the recipients to respond to different planners.

What do you think. Better?

10 thoughts on Strong Verbs = Clear, Tight Sentences

Comments are closed.

  1. What do you think. Better?

    Well… no. Your version is actually longer. It isn’t really clearer. Though this isn’t your fault – you picked a pretty tough example.

    What’s the main message? I submit it was this:

    “Participants were asked to help plan the event.”

    Normally I would not use the passive sense – “were asked” – because it adds length and increased vagueness. So, for example, I might say:

    “XYZ Inc. asked participants to help plan the event.” But it wasn’t the company doing the asking, it was some anonymous invitation writer within the company. And (a) we don’t know who it was, and (b) even if we did know, this person isn’t the focus of the sentence, the request is (actually, it turns out that they are the focus of the sentence, but let’s go the other direction first).

    What’s more important is the chopping I did. Gone is the whole verbiage surrounding the ‘invitation’. Presumably participants were invited, therefore, the use of ‘invited’ is redundant.

    Gone as well is the process – ‘to respond to the planners’, ‘in order to make this event easier to organize.’ That’s because these whole phrases don’t actually say anything. What does it mean to say, ‘to respond to the planners’? Is there some other way to help that doesn’t involve responding? And why would they respond?

    You may say that I’ve changed the meaning of the sentence. And I admit that I have. The reason this sentence was so awful to begin with is that the writer wanted to couch a half dozen different (and implied) messages in the single sentence – possibly without even knowing it.

    Like what? Like this:

    – this even is so exclusive participants were invited
    – it was so posh, actual invitations were distributed
    – it was organized (by ‘organizers’)
    – The organizers were in control (they ‘directed’ participants; participants merely ‘responded’; the decisions were made by ‘the planners’)
    – it was organized (by the planners)

    What’s wrong with this sentence isn’t so much the sentence (though it’s pretty awful); it’s the message.

    What the author really wanted to say is this:

    “Our event is first class. It is so exclusive; you have to have an invitation. It is very well organized by professional planners. The planners even asked particpants to help plan the event.”

    So, the planners are the focus of the sentence after all. But only once we see the context and make the message clear. Of course, no company would actually write this. It’s too clear. So while bragging about their event they make it seem like a minor point – the participants’ planning – is the main point. They hide their intent behind misleading prose.

  2. Stephen — Of course there is never any single “best” way to edit a given sentence. Editing is an art, not a science. Editorial decisions come down to the editor’s best judgement.

    Personally I disagree with you about the main message of the example sentence — which goes to show how subjective this process is. Since the rest of your specific criticisms flowed from that interpetive difference, I don’t think it’s useful to keep hashing through the details of this sentence.

    You’re right about this: A fundamental problem with this sentence was that the writer tried to imply too many things without stating any of them clearly. That is a very, very common problem in writing, and one reason why I chose this example sentence.

    To sum up, I’d like to clarify these points. When it comes to tightening sentences:

    1. Shorter (fewer words) is not always clearer.

    2. “Tight” means first of all CLEAR, and secondly EFFICIENT. In that order. (Hence, point 1 above.)

    3. Passive verbs do indeed suck. They are a crutch for lazy, fuzzy thinking. They usually obscure action, which is why I encourage writers and editors to always try to eliminate them.

    4. Verbs are, indeed, a productive place to start when tightening up a sentence.

    5. Your mileage may vary in this as in all editorial matters.

    Thanks,

    – Amy Gahran
    Editor, CONTENTIOUS

  3. Thanks Amy, a useful set of advice. Especially after the
    clarifications prompted by Stephen. I like your reworked
    sentence but also agree that a lot of it depends on the
    intent of the sentence which is something we can only guess
    at in this case.

    Keep up the good work.

    Andrew.

  4. Newbie to blogs commenting (Sorry for the anonymous email, wasn’t sure how it would appear or not, and if so, if the email was harvestable — you can edit this bit out)

    I just wanted to say there are interesting points here, but was wondering your thought about essays on political/econmic/social subjects. Those topics often require indepth discussion of alternatives, variations, etc, rather than just the point. This requires longer articles, which is then harder to read on the web. What do you suggest? The pyramid approach with lots of headings and subheadings that are linked to at the top? I have seen this work on a few sites and I find myself coming back to long articles more than ones without this approach…

  5. Amy, I enjoy all your articles but this one’s particularly relevant. So much “corporate-speak” is sooooo ridiculous these days. Yet the pressure is on to sound professional and yet communicate artfully.

    One question about your sentence: are the different planners there to tackle different segments of the event, or to handle specific groups of participants? That would be my first question to the client before re-working this sentence.

    In the first case, “Invitation respondents were asked by XYZ to contact a specific planner focused on their interests.” Change the word ‘interests’ to ‘personal needs’ for the second case, IMHO.

  6. I agree with omitting “in order”–it’s often superfluous. And I agree that Amy may have misunderstood the meaning of the sentence. What’s important is to deconstruct the sentence, as Amy did, then query the originator. Only then can you successfully rewrite the sentence using clear language.

    One other point (unrelated but I can’t help it): Amy, you’re using the wrong symbol for your dashes. A dash is properly known as an em-dash in typography. You’re using an en-dash, which is used between numbers (as a minus sign, or between dates, for example) or to show an equal relationshop between entities.

  7. Okay, folks, I appreciate your input. I think, however, some of you are missing the forest for the trees here. Actually, you’re even missing the trees for the twigs!

    The point of this piece is that if you’re trying to clarify or tighten a sentence and you’re stuck, a good place to start is to examine and strengthen the verb. That’s the point — some practical advice.

    All the side issues being quibbled over in comments here are a matter of editorial opinion, and thus very subjective. There is never any single “correct” or “best” way to edit any sentence. For instance:

    1) Is “in order” superfluous? Yes, often. However, do many sentences sound choppy or awkward without it? Yes. The phrase is optional. In this case I took the option. Your mileage may vary.

    2) Did I misinterpret the sentence? Possibly. Did you? Possibly. The actual “correct” meaning of this sentence is not the issue. The issue is the technique I am explaining. Therefore, I picked an interpretation and edited accordingly. And in the article I acknowledged that it was not the only possible interpretation. So that discussion is irrelevant here.

    3) Should I have used an em-dash or an en-dash? Yes, I know what the grammar books say. They were all written with print media in mind. However, the web generally lacks precise controls over font and display. I’ve fount that in most fonts used in web browsers, en-dashes (–) display at a size comparable to how em-dashes look in print. In contrast, in a web-browser an actual em-dash (—) often displays at an uncomfortably long size. It’s awkward, even jarring, and it disrupts the visual flow too much. Therefore, in web content my editorial preference is to use an en-dash in most situations where an em-dash would be required in print. I think it’s easier on the reader. Again, this is a subjective matter, and your mileage may vary.

    …And yes, I know from ample past experience that my approach on this minor, minor point will elicit cries of “Heretic!” from some editors and grammarians. So be it. In my opinion, the presentation (including the punctuation) should suit the medium. Again, your mileage may vary.

    …And no, I’m not saying that there should be no rules of grammar or punctuation. I’m just saying that as media evolve, communication practices and conventions evolve too. Don’t believe me? Then go back to spelling and punctuating according to Samuel Johnson’s dictionary.

    For more on this, see: Grammar and Punctuation for the Web: What’s Proper?

    Sorry if I sound a little exasperated on this. I’ve just dealt with this odd brand of editorial tunnel-vision too many times.

    – Amy Gahran
    Editor, CONTENTIOUS

  8. Amy there are two things here for me.
    First: a short, punchy sentence is better than a long obscure one.
    Second: several short, punchy sentences are better than one long obscure one.

    The fact that so many people want to debate about what the original sentence really means simply reinforces this point. A long, obscure sentence may sound official but wht use is that if no-one knows what it means? Had the original writer followed your all-too-sensible advice, we would all know what they meant. And after all, the meaning is the point of the exercise.

    I agree with you absolutely that rewriting in the active voice is a powerful tool. So is the complementary skill of choosing positive words that clearly state what you do mean instead of negating something else. “Significant” instead of “not insignificant”, “choose active verbs” instead of “avoid passive verbs” for example.

    I try very hard to do it, and I’m constantly amazed at how hard it is to do it consistently!

  9. Amy, you make a good main point. Especially the advice to be precise, ie. that the verb should carry the main meaning of the sentence.

    To follow up some secondary points,
    ‘in order to’ is certainly overused, where ‘to’ would suffice, but it is necessary when the logical connection (‘X was done in order to Y’) is not obvious.

    Equally, the passive voice has its place. In your example, the focus is on the participants, who are receiving the instruction, so to use the passive puts them properly at the centre of the sentence. I assume that the context conveys that XYZ Inc. is doing the asking.